Lady Gaga - Born This Way
That whistling sound you hear? That’s the sound of an indifferent public when the next Madonna album drops. For the crown has surely passed - and there’s a new queen in Brooklyn. Her name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta and in the time since we reviewed her debut album (5/10, “Cue six, rather than seven, figure sales”) she’s climbed to the top of the Empire State like King Kong, swatting away doubters to become the biggest name in pop. Golden showers for us from on high, then.
There may be better albums in 2011, but none bigger or more anticipated. Barely out of the limelight since her debut, Lady Gaga has successfully transcended the banality of modern celebrity by being just a wee bit alien. Sure, we may have seen much of her schtick before, and some of her moves have the tang of month-old Gorgonzola, but give me a pop star with a kipper on her shoulder and a bratwurst in her pants over Cheryl 'Don't fuck me, I might break' Cole any day. Love her or hate her, Stefani simply retires to her plush batchelorette pad (with its elevator to the moon) and waves the royalties from ‘Bad Romance’ in our faces.
Let’s get the bad stuff out the way to begin with: the title track, far from being a cheeky passing of the torch is undignified larceny. ‘Hung Up’ might well be Madge’s last real stab but its ingenuity made 30 years of pop disappear in the twinkling of Agnetha’s eye, whereas 'Born This Way' just sounds like a cheap sweatshop knock-off that comes apart on the first wash. And while Madonna herself would probably admit to limited vocal talents, Gaga can sing, but what comes out sounds, ironically, a lot like Mama Ciccone. An accident of birth and geography one supposes, but it hinders GG from properly cementing her own identity - and only adds to the inevitable comparisons. The Latin-Broadway-isms of 'Americano' are about as welcome as the attentions of a drunk John on Times Square, while supposedly high-concept material like 'Scheiße' and 'Bad Kids' make no real impression. Even after five or six plays (i.e. about four more than the album received before some of those other gushing reviews) no lines stick, no couplets linger. Lyrical arrows, if aimed at the heart, land somewhere in a railway siding just outside Preston.
On the rare occasions when Gaga has the balls to go for broke it’s as exhilarating and as flummoxing as modern pop should be. Her success may be global but her best work is driven by the U.S. of Europe, with no reference to r’n’b or current Yankee flavors. (And ignore those that say Born This Way is in some way Gaga’s heavy metal album. Ridiculous artwork aside, a couple of guitar solos don’t make this her version of British Steel.) The up-tempo beats and hands-in-air choruses are pure Eurodance, a barely acknowledged fact in the rush to claim her as some kind of androgynous nurse with her fingers on the pulse of tomorrow; and if by tomorrow you mean 2008 with added glitter. The basic format is the same, it's just GG shops on Madison Avenue while you're more likely to see Basshunter in Lidl.
‘Judas’ you’ve heard already, and from the skittering opening beats through the decadent, Fall-of-Rome verses to the anthemic chorus, ripe for soundtracking the last rays of sun on a Mediterranean 18-30, this is pop from the last days of Pompeii via Czech backstreet tourist discos. It's awesome. The intrusion of a saxophone is unwelcome but 'Hair' is prime driving-with-the-top-down, all-girls-together material that someone like Shania Twain might do if her producers decide she needs to be 'down with the kids'. Single Moms in Utah are already adopting it as an anthem. The comparison continues with penultimate track ‘You And I’, straight off the Southern gal, lighters-in-air production line, helped no doubt by the input of ‘Mutt’ Lange’s production. Closer 'The Edge of Nowhere', despite being presented at the recent Radio 1 festival as a moving piano-led ballad, is actually more of the 'Bonnie Tyler on bennies' that defines the entire album. That bleedin' sax makes another appearance if you need to know any more.
If there’s an overarching problem it’s that the material is, for the most part, just alright. If this was Fragma or Cascada, no-one would be tripping overthemselves to give it the time of day. Which is testament to Gaga Inc. and the machine she's built up around her. So you need to look behind the mask to tease out exactly what's going on: Fernando Garibay, the one-time teenage prodigy behind a lot of Enrique Inglesias' material; Jeppe 'Junior Senior' Laursen; RedOne, the guy who wrote the official World Cup 2006 theme and whose biggest influences are ABBA and Roxette. Born This Way is as much about the guys in the control room as it is about Gaga herself and stands in stark contrast with Christina Aguilera's recent experiments in working with female collaborators. That too, to be fair, was a mixed bag and, of itself, says little about LG's modus operandi, except that Kate Nash's recently voiced concerns about successful women artists still being propped up by male writers and producers rings ever more true.
It gives us no great pleasure to describe Born This Way as pretty ordinary. We could probably do with another hose down anyway. Cue seven, rather than eight figure sales.